Republican senators were sent home for August recess with a pocket card printed with a simple message.
"When Republicans took control of the Senate, we promised to get the Senate working again," the card reads. "We are keeping our promise."
The card lists an assortment of legislation passed in the Senate, from long-term highway and education reauthorizations to the anti-human trafficking bill. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, leads the operation that produces the materials for the August recess.
"I think, particularly for our '16 cycle, but for everybody ... going into the August recess, I think the message is that the Republican majority matters, and it's made a difference. If you look at the way that regular order has been restored in the Senate, the record of accomplishment, the list of things that we've been able to get done and the way in which we have opened up the process and allowed not just Republicans but Democrats to be a part of it has led to a lot of bipartisan successes," Thune said in an interview shortly before the Senate adjourned for the district work period.
He conceded that ultimately, GOP senators on the ballot next year in what figures to be a difficult cycle will have to be able to show that bills not only passed the Senate but made it all the way to President Barack Obama.
"I think in that first bucket, yeah you want to be able to show not only can you get something through the Senate, but ... the House can transact it and you can work ... in a bipartisan way to get some accomplishments that hopefully the president will sign into law," Thune said. "We've had a lot of those. I mean, you know we've had 30-plus bills signed into law now, 70 have passed the Senate, and I think [there is] the opportunity for a bunch more. I think eventually the highway bill, the defense bill and the education reform bill will reach the president's desk."
This may all be tricky because while the Senate is producing bipartisan compromise measures that need Democrats on board to get the 60 votes needed to overcome filibuster threats, the Republican-led House has no such concerns, and there's n always the uncertainty about what Obama will do with his veto power.
"It's hard to say exactly what he'll do on any of those, but there's some question about what he might do with the education reform bill," Thune said. "There's a whole series of things that I think, in the end, we'll be able to say, 'These are things we delivered on,' and you know, it wasn't just rhetoric. It really was a commitment."
Democrats more than quibble with Republicans taking credit for the return to a productive Senate, arguing that they have erected fewer roadblocks than the GOP minorities in prior sessions of Congress. And the fact that one of the bills on the accomplishment list is the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act lends credibility to that.
When Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, sought to move that bill during the lame-duck session of the last Congress, it faced a one-man blockade from then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Coburn, a strident fiscal hawk, argued that the bill largely duplicated existing government programs.
But this summer, a bit paradoxically, it was a decision by the Democratic caucus to unite against taking up spending bills at levels locking in budget cuts currently on the books that Thune said may have allowed more substantive legislation to advance.
"I think that's probably true. Sometimes I think the things that the Democrats ... think are good ideas have a tendency to backfire on 'em," Thune told CQ Roll Call last week. "I think in some ways, if we had been moving — because all 12 bills have now passed the committee for the first time in six years — and if we had been taking them a week at a time or two weeks at a time getting them across the floor, there would have been less time doing highways or education reform."
Thune speculated that if the appropriations process had moved ahead, the overhaul of elementary and secondary education might well have been left by the wayside. But, the moves by the Democrats sets up a serious standoff in September about how to move a continuing resolution funding the government beyond Sept. 30, even if there's no debate over defunding Planned Parenthood.
"I think the question is, is there a temporary CR through the end of the year ... or is there a CR for longer," Thune said, pointing to the possibility of a full-year funding bill.
"If you move a CR you're basically locking in whatever the Democrats' priorities were in the last Congress," Thune said. "And all the appropriation bills that the Appropriations Committee passed have — not only address our priorities in terms of spending, but they also carry a lot of legislative riders on it. So I think it's advantageous for us at some point to try and move appropriation bills."
Thune also said there's no reason to rush in moving forward with using the budget reconciliation process to pass legislation through the House and Senate that would repeal Obamacare. He cited Democrats' use of the reconciliation sidecar to pass the 2010 health care overhaul in the calendar year after the budget resolution was adopted.
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